Yifei Wu | Wang Zhongjie: In His Own Shadow

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“I am often asked in casual conversations – ‘What artists are you drawn to?’ A question I would also ask back, usually followed by a suggestive sigh – ‘Oh…’ thus completing the preliminary assessment of each other’s interests and an initial exchange of perspectives. If I mention a name from the 18th or 19th century, they would always ask – ‘What about contemporary artists?’ When I speak of someone from the earlier movements or if the visual language does not seem quite ‘contemporary’, I am used to jokingly say – ‘Not very contemporary, is it?’ Everyone has a preset art historical framework in his or her mind about what is contemporary, modern and post-modern. The boundaries are sometimes not so clear, but it could easily place artists who are seen as non-typical or unfashionable in blind spots. This framework is on the one hand, based on the analysis and studies of critics and theorists and on the other hand, actual personal experience also help us shape our understanding of art history and this ‘contemporariness’ that we sense, but how does this vague consensus that is formed through being imperceptibly influenced by everyday life be able to set a standard to everything?”

Wang Zhongjie (b.1972) is exactly the kind of artist who stays away from the current tide. While looking at his work I get a very similar feeling as to looking at a Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) painting – a heavy satisfaction I feel at the core, a satisfaction that is beyond time and space, but at the same time very human.


In the current cultural context of capitalist globalization, the life of an individual is fragmentised in mass communication. To see things around us in a different way, to pay attention to details; or as an individual to intervene with wider social and political issues (which seems to be a trend that has become increasingly fashionable); or to apply contemporary and modernist visual language thus relating oneself to an artistic movement, these are all shortcuts that an artist could take in order to define and maintain his or her own perspective and at the same time gain approval. However, Wang rejects all of it. He wants his paintings to have no connection to the era, but rather, reflecting something that he sees beyond essence. This may seem to be too grand of an investigation in life, but what deeply moves me is exactly his determination and his meditations on humanity that is predominant in his work.

Wang does not want to be confined within time. He has remained in his hometown – Zhengzhou in Henan Province his whole life, consciously staying away from the center from our era. “A real person, should be timeless”, says the artist, with a rare seriousness and a sense of romanticism on his face. He is in an inaccessible state of the ideal world, as a man with one foot set in the real society. He does not think that he’s a painter. To him, painting is merely a tool, a way of thinking. This is why most of his works are untitled, as though conversational fragments have found their way to life through deep thinking. He admired Nietzsche the first time he read his book in a friend’s house, and now he has steered away from the Western framework and become more focused on Eastern philosophies such as Zhuangzi and Buddhism. This entire development of thinking is also evident in his career.

Wang’s earlier works have a very strong sense of narrative. Images are composed of symbolic forms such as snakes, cocks, rabbits, female bodies and butterflies that are used to illustrate the female reproductive organs, roads, forests, lakes etc. all mingled together – as audience we could easily be led into a Freudian psychoanalytical discussion. In an early triptych – The Truth (2004), the horizon cuts through all of the images but the sky and the ground remain undistinguishable, as they are equally dark and chaotic. There is a naked woman’s body in each of the sections – one is leaning on a tree branch, the other with her legs spread open, and the last running away from something. From afar, under her feet and inside a cave, three unidentifiable animals emerge. There are infinite secrets and wickedness within the overlapping colours. The chaos, anxieties and desires depicted in this piece represent this stage of his work very well. The sensitivity of the artist drives him to document his conscious and sub-conscious, during which would set himself free. From my point of view, this stage of his career is “pliable”, the works are primal and straight-forward. The heart of the artist seems easily reachable and what the symbolic forms represent is accessible to the spectators. To Wang, this process is crucial and an absolute necessity, the works from this stage of his career could be in respect, regarded independently.

The birth of Xiaoshu, Wang’s seven year-old son was a turning point in his life. Xiaoshu is his only connection to society. It is at this point that his introversive thinking opened up into a wider context, thus changing his style of painting. He started working in a much larger scale and in his compositions, there is much more depth in space. Hermaphroditic half-man half-animal bodies are spread across the land, a wolf extending from the bottom half of a woman’s body laid on top of half a man. When I look at this piece, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s words “humans are creatures that are not yet settled in form, with the potential to develop in any direction.”

Between 2009 and 2010, the narrative nature of his work weakened. Symbols are placed in abstract spaces, and over time, the former became less dominant as the latter takes over the whole surface of the canvas. His work became bolder. Such boldness, on the one hand, comes from many years of self-discipline. His spontaneous and messy brush strokes became tidied, the colours that are hidden inside the dark surfaces remained, on the other hand, comes from his own meditation in the wider context of humanity. He believes that human beings should not only compare oneself with his or her own era, that we must remove the idea of time. He believes that being in today’s world does not differ from Zhuangzi in the Warring States Period, that we all exist in the same dimension, and could be acquainted. This conception of space is what he wants to explore on the canvas, a not necessarily physical sense.

In the recent series, everything with any representation is dissolved in the center of the painting or overlapped or merged into graduated colours. The inclining frames reminds me of the spider webs from his earlier works and the geometrical spaces in the later stages, revealing his current anxieties and suffering regardless of the brighter colours that are used in some of them. The suffocating desires have become even more immediate, only that they are hidden on a much deeper level. This direction is where almost all thinkers would end up, perhaps with very similar goals, but the path they take would differ. Looking at Wang’s body of work thus far, the current stage seems to be a delitescence. Something powerful is being distilled in the center of the canvas, hidden beneath the surface.

The name of this exhibition is inspired by a chapter in Nietzche’s Human All Too Human – The Wanderer and His Shadow, in which the subheading reads – “a book for free spirits”. This is an exhibition dedicated to all free souls.